First off, yes, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were too old for the parts they were playing, but it doesn't detract from the story, at least on Natalie Wood's part.
The characters are all at rich Big Daddy's (Oliver) plantation home to celebrate his 65th birthday. Unknown to him and Big Mama (Stapleton), but known to everyone else, this is also his last, as he's been diagnosed with terminal cancer but told that it's a spastic colon to soften the blow, and his days are numbered.
Brick (Wagner) is the all-American hero. A football star, the envy of everyone. He should be at the top of the world, but his best friend Skipper has recently died as a result of too much alcohol. In addition, Skipper started drinking after being convinced by Brick's wife Maggie (Wood) that he was gay, and their friendship, which Brick deems pure and true, was actually driven, in Maggie's opinion, by Skipper's unrequited love for Brick. He attempts to sleep with Maggie, but it ends badly, and after Brick turns his back on him after confessing he loves him, he drinks himself to death.
At the start, Brick is now drinking himself slowly to death, all the while being resentful of Maggie's intervention, and her part in his death. It's never clear if Brick himself was gay, and if so, if just for Skipper, or in general. The fact that he and Maggie engaged in a sexual relationship at least seems to confirm he was not purely a gay man. He coldly ignores Maggie much of the time, instead taking solace in drinking alcohol to achieve the click, when the troubles of his life fade away and he spends the rest of his waking day in blissful peace.
Centering around this are Gooper (Hedley) and Mae (Peach). Gooper is Brick's resentful older brother, who did everything that Big Daddy asked, but never was given the time of day by him, unlike Brick, who gets Big Daddy's affection even when Brick is ruining his life. Gooper and Mae want control of Big Daddy's estate, and do everything in their power to sully Big Daddy's image of Brick, and to highlight the marital strife and hatred between Brick and Maggie, and the fact they are childless, which Big Daddy regrets most of all.
The cast isn't as good as the '58 version with Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Judith Anderson, and Madeline Sherwood. But the film highlights the homosexual undertones of Williams' original play, which could not be delved into because of the sanitary codes of the 50s. And really, it's hard to top Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor at the top of their games, and added to that are Ives and Sherwood, who recreate their roles from the hit Broadway play.
Wood makes for an excellent Maggie, despite her age. Much better than Jessica Lange's characterization, which for the most part was shrill, even when trying to be seductive. Maggie is high-strung, that's for sure, living with a man who sets guidelines for their staying married, refuses to sleep with her, and resents her fully. But Wood finds the right balance between tension and seductiveness.
Wagner is a bit miscast as Brick. He doesn't look the part. Brick is an athletic god. Maggie laments the fact he hasn't lost his looks yet, in spite of the alcohol. That's just not Wagner. He's a good-looking guy still, he's just not the magnetic image Brick is supposed to be. I like Robert Wagner in other things, this just isn't a role he's physically fit for. Also, his acting in the first act is off. He's very hateful towards Maggie. That works when she talks about Skipper, but shouldn't be the undertone of the entire act. He's more indifferent to Maggie than anything, until she rubs the Skipper wound raw, at least in Williams' play. Later on though, Wagner grows in the role, and is much better in the second act, when talking to Big Daddy, and the third, when the revelation Big Daddy is drying and the vultures trying to take the estate start circling.
As Daddy, Olivier fares much better. His southern accent is good, his acting is good, and he's light years ahead of Rip Torn in the aforementioned remake with Lange, who was apparently directed to play Big Daddy as drunk and senile. Big Daddy is a powerful man, you're supposed to be awed in his presence, and while I like Rip Torn, he just wasn't it. Olivier strikes the balance of awe and desperation, wanting to leave everything to Brick, but unable to reconcile the fact that he'd be leaving a 10 million dollar estate to a childless drunk who would simply use the money to buy alcohol and further run himself into the ground.
Maureen Stapleton also excels as Big Mama, easily the most pitiful character in the film. She loves and dotes on Big Daddy, despite his open resentfulness of her, and his affinity for insults, which she tries to love, in spite of the fact it hurts. She really shines in act three, which is her pivotal scene in the play.
Also, Hedley and Peach are good in their lesser roles of Gooper and Mae, They're not heavily dimensional, serving mainly as antagonists to drive the other characters to get through to Brick, but they play well what they're given.
It's not the best of the films, that goes to the '58 version, in spite of it's upbeat ending and skirting around of the homosexual undertones in the original play, but it's the better of the two straight play adaptations, in spite of some miscasting on Robert Wagner's part, though he does OK in the role. Ultimately, this is a dysfunctional day in the lives of very dysfunctional people, and overall, it delivers.
I give it a 7/10